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Friday, December 9, 2016

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior editor at National Review, and a leading conservative pundit. The views expressed here are his own.

July 26 (Bloomberg) — Conservatives on Capitol Hill think they have a chance to strike a mortal blow against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul this fall. If their plan goes forward, however, it will backfire.

The plan is to oppose any bill to fund the government or increase the debt limit that also provides money for putting the health care law in place. Because Republicans control the House, Democrats can’t continue borrowing or paying for government operations without Republican support. So, conservatives say, Republicans should insist on defunding Obamacare as the price of that support.

The chance that Democrats would go along — would give up on their signature legislative initiative of the last decade soon after having won the presidential election and gained Senate and House seats — approaches zero percent. So if Republicans stay firm in this demand, the result will be either a government shutdown or a partial shutdown combined with a debt default.

Either would be highly unpopular, and each party would blame the other. The public, however, would almost certainly blame Republicans, for five reasons.

First, Republicans are less popular than the Democrats and thus all else equal will lose partisan finger-pointing contests. Second, the executive has natural advantages over a group of legislators in a crisis atmosphere. Third, people will be naturally inclined to assume that the more anti-government party must be responsible. Fourth, some Republicans will say that government shutdowns or defaults are just what the country needs, and those quotes will affect the image of all Republicans. And fifth, the news media will surely side with the Democrats.

This is true even though Obamacare is unpopular. Conservatives and moderate Democrats have grown more skeptical of it over time, and 22 House Democrats voted with the Republicans to delay its individual mandate. But none of those Democratic representatives would have a hard time standing against Republicans if they try this maneuver. They’ll just say they oppose a shutdown or a default. Democratic voters who harbor doubts about the health law will take the same view.

Bringing the federal government to a standstill would confirm the Democrats’ caricatures that conservatives are reflexively hostile to all government. And Republicans would be doing it without proposing a plausible replacement for Obamacare. So Democrats would be able to say that Republicans were crippling the government and credit markets in order to take health insurance away from 30 million people.

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